As parents, navigating the minefield of bringing up children can be a challenge. The trial and error nature of parenting, and the fact that every child develops at different rates means that knowing whether our children are on the right track can feel like a guessing game. This is particularly true when it comes to identifying problems.

Developmental disabilities range from autism and behavioural disorders to cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, so spotting signs of these disabilities can be easy or complicated. Certain issues can be identified at birth (and sometimes even before), but some problems don’t become apparent until certain milestones are not being met and we realise that a child is behind in their development.

So, how do we identify developmental disabilities?

Well, unfortunately for many of these disabilities, there is no cut and dry test, so observation is the key to identification in the early stages. Knowing when a child should be reaching certain milestones is a starting point. It will help you identify whether your child is delayed in their development. It is important to make sure you don’t panic if your little one is slightly behind expected milestones, these are only a guide. It’s when significant delays occur, or delays across multiple aspects of your child’s development that further investigation should be done.

What causes developmental disabilities?

For many developmental disabilities, the cause is unclear and it is often a number of factors which contribute to the problem. The main risk factors include problems at birth (including prematurity, low birth weight or oxygen deprivation), medical conditions (including ear infections, illnesses and injuries), and environmental factors (including trauma, a mother drinking or taking drugs prior to birth or poor living conditions).

What should you be looking for?

There are five main areas in which a developmental disability may occur: cognitive skills, social and emotional skills, speech and language skills, fine and gross motor skills, and activities in daily living. If a child exhibits issues with two or more of these areas, it is considered to be a global developmental delay.

Cognitive delays affect a child’s ability to learn, think and problem solve. Early ways to identify this is to ask yourself if your baby exhibits curiosity or if your toddler is learning new words, colours or counting. If the answer is no to these things, it may be a sign of developmental delay.

Social and emotional delays present themselves in a child’s ability to relate and interact with others. Babies should smile at people and make noises in an attempt to communicate and toddlers should be able to express their feelings and make friends. A lack of these signs could be cause for concern.

Speech and language delays may seem obviously identifiable but there are some things to consider that you may not have been aware of; it is not always the case that a child can’t pronounce words. With babies, the absence of babbling or cooing could help identify issues but in toddlers, their ability to understand instructions, tell stories that keep on track or use words in the correct context could also be telling signs. This type of delay is quite common which is perhaps the reason that Speech and Language Pathologists are trained specially to deal with this, whilst the other four issues are generally dealt with by paediatricians or occupational therapists.

Fine and gross motor delays can be identified in babies if they are not able to hold objects (fine motor) or if they don’t begin to sit up, roll or walk (gross motor). As children get older, not being able to hold tools or draw (fine motor) or having difficulties jumping or climbing may indicate a developmental delay.
Daily living problems simply mean that day to day tasks are not handled by the child. In babies, we as parents naturally do this for them, but if children don’t begin to eat or dress themselves, herein lies a potential issue.

How does a child receive a diagnosis?

Generally, your first step is to visit your GP who will advise you of the next steps based on his initial assessment of your child. Your GP will generally refer you to a specialist or for further testing and investigation based on this assessment.

If you think your child has a speech or language delay, you can opt to visit a speech and language pathologist without a referral from your doctor.

Remember, early intervention is best and there’s no harm in going to the doctor if you think something’s not quite right. As the age old saying goes, “It’s better to be safe than sorry”, and it’s true when it comes to helping your child with their development.

What treatment is available?

Depending on your child’s diagnosis, there are a number of different treatment options. Most of these include the help of a specialised professional. Occupational therapists are amongst the most common options for children with developmental disabilities, along with physiotherapist, speech and language pathologist and behavioural therapists.

Living with developmental delay

Living with any kind of disability comes with challenges, but with a positive outlook and the right tools and professionals at your disposal, living a happy and fulfilled life is absolutely possible. Understanding that life won’t be bad, it will just be different is a great way to look at life when raising a child with a developmental delay.

With early intervention and treatment, many children with developmental disibilities grow up to become independent adults. For those with more serious developmental disabilities, particularly those who have trouble with completing day to day tasks or have low cognitive function, there are still options to help them live the best life they can. This includes community living, providing them with the equipment that they need and equipping their families with the skills and tools to help.